Hector Lasanta gently places a hot dog between two buns, smiling and talking charismatically with people passing by as he drizzles his famous homemade honey chipotle sauce with stylistic flair.
“My first experience cooking, I was probably 4 or 5, and my mom had made something to fry, like a little fritter batter,” Lasanta said. “When she went outside, I turned the oil all the way up, and I put the batter in there and took it out and burned myself.
“That was my first experience in the kitchen, but I always loved cooking.”
Today, the 37-year-old Goldsboro chef creates gourmet hot dogs — not just average, run-of-the-mill dogs.
Nearly four months ago, Lasanta opened a small hot dog stand called Happy Dogs Gourmet Hot Dogs. The cart is set up outside the Wayne County Courthouse, 224 E. Walnut St., from mid-morning to early afternoon on days Lasanta has off from work in Raleigh.
“I thought about the classics,” Lasanta said. “You gotta have the chili cheese dog, but then because we are in the U.S., that’s why I came up with the bacon cheeseburger.
“People love bacon cheeseburgers, so why not put it on a dog?”
Sweet heat, bacon cheeseburger and chili hot dogs are his specialty. One all-beef hot dog between steamed buns with crispy onions, a generous amount of “addictive” honey chipotle sauce, jalapeños and ranch are his specialty.
“A lot of people don’t want to venture and get something sweet on their dog, so it’s a little hard to sell,” said Lasanta. “But once they have it, they want more.
“I cook a lot of Asian food. I didn’t have a good way to incorporate that in a dog at the time, so that’s how I came up with the honey chipotle sauce because it’s sweet and spicy.”
Growing up with a love for food, Lasanta learned early on he loved cooking for people after serving up his favorite breakfast dish: French toast. To this day, he swears it’s his favorite breakfast food.
After graduating from the Caribbean Culinary Institute in Trinidad and Tobago, Lasanta planned to open a restaurant, but knew he had a few steps to take along the way.
“I always wanted to have a restaurant, so the first step was to have a food trailer,” he said. “I have the trailer, and I was going to build the food trailer off that. As I was doing the trailer, I needed instructions on doing a small steam trailer, and I found a teaser blueprint. So, I bought it, and the blueprint was for a hot dog cart.”
After realizing the blueprint was for a hot dog cart, Lasanta decided to take a crack at serving dogs. So, he built the cart, acquired the permits and decided to hold a taste testing at his house to experiment with his new menu.
“I made my own cheese sauce, I cooked all the beef, my chili, everything, the sausage — I probably had a good 15 people at the taste testing, and nobody had one complaint about the ratios,” Lasanta said. “It wasn’t a trial and error thing.
“I just bought everything I knew I needed for my sauces and menu and cooked it.”
For now, Lasanta said his schedule is uncertain. While he is excited to run the hot dog cart, he works at a restaurant in Raleigh and sets up shop whenever he has mornings off. During April, Happy Dogs took a short break from selling dogs.
When Lasanta is open for business, a steady stream of people entering or leaving the courthouse finds a few minutes to check out his food.
“The most challenging is getting up even when the weather is bad, that you know you not going to see anyone — the most challenging is being consistent,” he said. “When we stopped coming, we got messages on Facebook.”
Happy Dogs has three gourmet hot dog options for people to choose from for $3 a dog: chili cheese, bacon cheeseburger and sweet heat. People can also order a hot dog with a topping for $2. Toppings include ketchup, mustard, mayo, sauerkraut, relish, onion, jalapeño, crispy onion and chili. Nachos are $2.
Lasanta also offers a few combo deals, including one hot dog, chips and soda for $5; two gourmet hot dogs, chips and soda for $7; two chili dogs, chips and soda for $6; and two gourmet dogs, chips and lemonade for $8. Soda and water are $1, and fresh lemonade is $3. Happy Dogs accepts cash and card.
With plenty of customers, Lasanta still finds any opportunity he gets to give back to those who need it the most. On many occasions, Lasanta will give a free hot dog to people who are walking by hungry but find themselves without money. He said giving back to those who need it the most is the best part about his job.
“If you’re hungry, you can come here and have a hot dog,” Lasanta said. “If you’re hungry and you don’t have money, you can come here.
“That’s why we’re here — to share.”